In Sickness and in Health

Neither cancer nor tour burnout can stop Jack's Mannequin

Jul 12, 2006 at 4:00 am
Andrew McMahon's story is a Behind the Music executive producer's wet dream. Soon after graduating high school, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter-pianist scored a Drive-Thru Records deal with his Orange County, California, quintet, Something Corporate. Upon releasing their 2001 EP, Audioboxer, the emo-leaning piano-pop wavemakers were upstreamed into MCA Records (now part of Geffen) for their 2002 full-length, Leaving Through the Window. The band soon toured with the likes of New Found Glory and graced the main stage of the annual Vans Warped Tour. By the time McMahon and Co. took to the road in support of 2003's North, they were well into orbit.

Only McMahon hadn't quite prepared himself for the launch. Returning home after a year touring Australia alongside the Offspring, McMahon was physically, mentally and creatively burnt-out. His pale appearance — magnified by dyed-blond hair hanging past his chin and a massive beard — reflected his psychological state.

"I didn't cut my hair for three years; it looked ridiculous," he recalls. "It's definitely funny to look at those pictures and be like, 'Dude, what were you doing?'"

He shaved his head, locked himself in his room and wrote a string of personal tunes he was certain had zero commercial prospects. But once friends heard what he'd been working on, the project took a new turn, particularly once Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee joined McMahon in the studio to record drum parts for what would become Everything in Transit, the debut effort from a side project McMahon ultimately called Jack's Mannequin.

The album was a vast departure from McMahon's Something Corporate output. More sentimental, more cinematic and concerned with much more than generic heartbreak and teen angst, Transit chronicled a year spent looking inward: breaking from a life held in permanent-vacation stasis, pushing loved ones away and seeking redemption. But as the tracks progressed, McMahon's first-person narrator became more in tune with himself and his place in the world.

"Every time we got through a new song, it'd be just like, 'Wow, I really love this shit,'" he says. "I was really passionate about that record. That's one of the first times when I've been able to complete a full thought in a record."

By then Everything in Transit had found a home with Maverick Records, although the new band (guitarists Bobby Anderson and Jacques Brautbar, bassist Jon Sullivan and drummer Jay McMillan) had practiced together a mere five times before making their public debut at the March 2005 SXSW Music Conference in Austin.

"For once I didn't feel rushed; I didn't feel stressed," McMahon says. "I felt like I was at my best."

His intuition, however, was off. That May, after seeking medical attention for prolonged laryngitis, McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia. It was the same day he completed mastering sessions for Everything in Transit. All Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin tour dates were cancelled, and he began a series of radiation treatments, which left him once again hairless, as well as susceptible to shingles and a near-fatal case of pneumonia.

But on the same day that Everything in Transit was released last August, McMahon received a stem-cell transplant from his sister, Katie. The album debuted in the Top 40 of the Billboard 200 Album chart — and, more important, the procedure was a success.

"Surprisingly, I feel pretty much back to normal at this point," McMahon says today. "I guess a lot of that is going to be relative to a very tough year, so maybe technically I'm not. But compared to where I was, I feel a million times better, so I'm not complaining. I still get monthly blood tests and whatnot, and I still go to the doctor to have my meds adjusted accordingly. And then around the year mark, I'll have a new bone-marrow biopsy done."

He's been feeling so good, in fact, that he recently began to write and record again, entering the studio alone between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., "with a good buzz and working all night. It took me a while to get back. It took so much of my energy that I didn't really write music when I was sick.

"And until recently I've had this weird case of writers' block, just trying to beat the last record," he continues. "For me, it's my favorite thing that I've done ever, and I got sort of wrapped up in watching it unfold from a hospital bed. It's hard to move on from it. I've just now reached the point where I'm ready to write a new record and not stress about the old one as much. Having that fire to write music again feels great."

His current demos, McMahon says, are a departure from anything he's done before. After touching on a style reminiscent of Beck's Sea Change, he's found himself leaning towards an "organic, celebratory-dance" sound he calls "sorta Postal Service-y."

"I think a lot of people are expecting me to come out with a record about getting sick and all that stuff," he says. "But truthfully I think Everything in Transit was that record by accident, so I'm trying not to repeat history. It'd be easy to get safe at this point, but the whole idea of this project was to be really free and just experiment and have fun. I've been doing that, and we've been working on these really cool, ultra-rhythmic, moody chord changes."

Though the material is strictly intended for a second Jack's Mannequin album (and Something Corporate guitarist Josh Partington has been working with his harder-rocking side project, Firescape), McMahon says the long Something Corporate hiatus won't turn permanent. There's talk of a tour in early- or mid-2007, followed by studio time after the sophomore Jack's album is completed.

Not that McMahon is eager to hammer out any specific plans just yet. He's instead focused on maintaining his health and enjoying his current string of tour dates.

"The guys in my band are really crazy pro musicians, so we have a good time adding little sections here and there," he enthuses. "I don't mean jamming per se, but we've been having fun changing up songs, doing a lot of covers. It's a little bit looser, laid-back, classic-rock vibe in that we take our time with the show and try to develop the songs further than they are on the record.

"My head space is good," he concludes. "I learned a lot over the past year, not all of it related to recording music. It was definitely a big wake-up call, that's no question. I have a little more passion for living than I used to. I've definitely benefited in that sense. Musically and artistically, it solidified that I just want to continue to do what feels good."